S2 E6 | Jemele Hill
Journalist Jemele Hill shot to the top of sports journalism with high visibility and daily hosting on ESPN. Then, in 2018, Hill made headlines when she parted ways with the sports media titan. The storyteller-turned-entrepreneur sits down with hosts Rashad Bilal and Troy Millings to outline her journey from newspaper intern to production company owner and all the stops along the way in this week’s episode of “Assets Over Liabilities.”
Getting right to the crux, our hosts opened the show by asking Hill about the political statements she’s made via Twitter. “I didn’t consider it speaking out,” she clarified. “I considered it ‘telling the truth,’ which is a core principle in journalism. We’re supposed to be truth-tellers on top of being storytellers, and we’re also supposed to hold those in power accountable,” she said of her opinions on the Trump administration at the time.
Journalism has always been a passion for Jemele Hill, so much so that she cannot recall a time where she wanted to do anything else. Hill shared with the hosts that she’d read the weekly newspaper and subscribed to magazines like Sports Illustrated to study and master writing styles. “That was my dream job — to work at Sports Illustrated and be a writer and to write these incredible profiles on issues and about people,” she said. “I took a high school journalism class and I was hooked.”
Before graduating from college, Hill took her first job doing clerical work with her grandmother in local government but quickly switched roles due to paper cuts. She actually began her journalism career with the Detroit Free Press — the largest newspaper in Michigan — answering phones in the sports department. “From there, I’ve always had a job writing. I’m just very fortunate.”
When the hosts asked her how she handled being a woman in the male-dominated world of sports, she replied: “I got too much confidence early,” she laughed. Jemele Hill credits phenomenal mentors for that self-confidence and assuredness she had entering a truly male-dominated space. “There were many locker rooms I’d enter and be the only Black person or the only woman and definitely the only Black woman,” she recalled.
Early on, Hill learned the importance of understanding the business of journalism. She’d go on to share tips and bites of wisdom for aspiring journalists throughout the interview.
“I became a better journalist when I became a better businesswoman,” she said. “The main thing you have to create, regardless of where you are, is leverage.”
Hill went on to outline exactly how she did that in her first job out of college as an intern at a newspaper in Raleigh, N.C. When another intern told her that his contract had been extended for another 11 months, she realized that the organization was saving money that way. “There was no way I was going to be an intern for another 11 months,” she said, “so I got another job offer. I came back to Raleigh, and it was another job I would have taken — I wasn’t just going to pump fake. And I was like, ‘Unless you offer me a full-time job, I’m going to leave,’ and they offered me a job and matched the salary.” The job offer was a position at Sports Illustrated, her dream company, but the role wasn’t exactly what she wanted. So, the young go-getter decided to keep the job in Raleigh and continue to hone her writing and storytelling skills.
Reality set in. “Journalism is very much a ‘working class’ profession, especially on a local level,” she said. “I thought I would be winning the game if I made $50,000. ‘If I made 50 grand, I’m out here ballin!’” she laughed. But her entire perspective shifted once she got to ESPN.
“It wasn’t until I got to ESPN that I really got serious about the business side of journalism because I got to see what people made. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s possible?!’ ESPN forced me to really grow up because it’s a different game being played at that level than it is at the previous places I had been. This is the first time I had an agent and the first time I really had to learn how to manage my money,” the businesswoman told the “Assets Over Liabilities” hosts.
She used her show “His & Hers,” alongside co-host Michael Smith, as an example: “I was making $200,000 less than him even though we were doing the same job.”
“It’s not so much about what you’re worth, it’s about what you will negotiate. I started at ESPN at such a low salary to begin with. One of those, ‘We’ll see how it works kind of contracts. A 2-and-2 contract: two-year deal with a two-year option, one of the worst contracts I ever signed.”
“My first year was $120,000, but that’s as an independent contractor, so that means I had to pay my own taxes and no health insurance. The lesson that I learned, you can’t sell out for a name,” she added.
When Hill signed her first seven-figure deal, she made only two big purchases and both were cars. She bought a Mercedes for her mother and a Maserati for herself. “It was a crazy feeling because my mother’s car was the first time I paid cash for a car,” she notes.
Hill made headlines when she walked away from her daily spot on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
“The thing about ‘SportsCenter,’ [it] was never my dream job, so it was easy to walk away. That’s because I was unhappy. I didn’t like the job,” she recalls. “I didn’t like some of the things they were doing to our show, I didn’t like the leadership that was in charge of our show so I was like, ‘Let me find something else within the company to do.’” She went on to explain how the controversial situation was motivation for ESPN to release her from her contract and allow her to get back to writing and less frequent television appearances.
This role switch made her happy as she was able to relocate to Washington, D.C. and continue building her legacy in a format that was more comfortable for her. Soon, she’d need to pivot again. “A principle to follow is leave them before they kick you out,” she said about her suspension and the impending severance of ties with ESPN. “Better to leave too early, than to leave too late when you’ve lost a bit of your leverage.”
Hill was ready to explore other opportunities, including starting a production company and releasing a book, “Uphill: A Memoir,” due October 2022. “We came up with a nice ‘send-off package’ and I left. I’m grateful for being a much better journalist when I left than I was when I got there,” she admitted. She continued her career at The Atlantic: “They were in the business of journalism … it gave me a lot more freedom, plus they allowed me to cover what I wanted to cover, which was to write about sports and its convergence with race, politics and gender.”
When asked if she was worried about her financial well-being, Hill responded with confidence, explaining she knew she’d see her ESPN salary again. “The Atlantic was one piece of the empire being built,” she started. “Then, I linked up with Spotify to build a podcast network for Black women and that is Black woman-run. I can hit the speaking engagement circuit in a real way. So, essentially I traded in one job for seven different jobs,” she laughed. “In a way, it opened me up to more streams of income … every job that I have now is a job that I want and not a job that I need.”
Watch the latest “Assets Over Liabilities” episode above to learn more about Jemele Hill’s work to empower women in media and entrepreneurship, the importance of understanding the business of journalism, her partnership with CNN+, and the groundbreaking series developed by her production house.